Digging around the ‘Net recently, I found a number of consumer feedback sites promising to get consumers refunds (which they may or may not deserve) for products and services.  While some review sites appear to have the consumer’s best interests in mind, others are offering “pay to get your way.” At one site I found, consumers pay to post their complaint, with no validation that the complaint is accurate is required, and it’s up on the site, search engine optimized, indexed and all. The site then sends an email to the company in question each time that complaint is visited, threatening that this complaint will be viewed by an infinite number of “people” unless the refund is provided.  Is it worth it to a large or small business to hire a lawyer to quell such an issue?

In an age where your brand reputation can be seriously tarnished and sales lowered by a passionate person who owns IHateCompanyX.com, when does this become libel?

When I studied for my APR exam a few years ago, I remember questioning where blogs will fall in the libel and slander laws. When is free speech and opinion in online journals like blogs considered defamatory? And what is a business to do when telling their side of the story is not allowed, due to confidentiality contracts or HIPAA?  Must they sit back and watch in silence?

As a PR professional, I advise my clients to be transparent, start a dialogue with the disgruntled customer, communicate, take it offline and talk it out.  Post on the boards and objectively explain policies in question or the background on the topic of discussion. 

However, this get blurry when the complaint isn’t valid in the first place.   It doesn’t make good business sense to start handing out refund money when a company wasn’t in the wrong.  It also isn’t good business to go on the defensive with former clients when future clients are watching. 

I’m itching to engage with social media expert and former Forrester analyst Peter Kim on this more in depth in the near future.  If you don’t know who he is yet, put him on your radar.  He shares a lot of free insight on his blog. Other experts like  Charlene Li and Pete Blackshaw are also leading the dialogue on this topic.

Anyone that tells you they have the foolproof answer to attack the issues of reputation-damaging blogs and boards right now is lying to you.  Some consumer/company feedback forums are like the wild, wild west.  Of course, brands can build better customer service and customer relationships in the upfront, and we can hope that it become a burgeoning trend.

(Disclosure: RatePoint, which proactively assists companies with online reputation management through the companies’ own Web sites, is a client of Airfoil’s. I don’t work directly on the account.)

— Elin Nozewski

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